When you think of a typical Hawaiian lei, there’s a good chance it’s made from the flowers and leaves of a colorful, tropical plant. But any savvy Hawaiian shopper knows the finest lei on the islands aren’t made from flowers or leaves—they’re made from hundreds of miniscule shells gathered slowly on Ni‘ihau’s shores.
Ni‘ihau lei, as they’re commonly known, only exist in highly prized, limited quantities. Ni’ihau is a privately owned “forbidden island” that’s home to a handful of Hawaiian-speaking residents and is completely off-limits to tourists. There are no paved roads, cars, or even indoor plumbing there, to boot.
For what it lacks in infrastructure, however, it boasts in artisans who meticulously craft this sought-after jewelry, a longtime Ni’ihau tradition. Because the island is exceptionally arid and devoid of colorful flowers, early residents would craft intricate lei using the island’s miniature shells. Remarkably small and ranging in color from white to pink to gold, the shells can easily fit on your fingernail—and about eight on the face of a quarter.
In 1887, when Queen Lili‘uokalani traveled all the way to London to meet with the Queen of England, it’s said she sent the fashion circles spinning with her stunning Ni‘ihau lei. Never before had Western fashion seen anything so delicate and fine—and they still manage to capture an audience.
What to Look For
These lei are arguably the “most Hawaiian” craft you’ll find throughout the islands. Though some of the shells are also found on the southern coast of Kauai, the luster and shape of Kauai’s shells are inferior to Ni‘ihau's. For those who don’t have trained eyes to tell the subtle difference, state law requires that shells marked as “Ni‘ihau” must actually be from there, and most retailers provide small forms that certify the authenticity.
Generally, the price reflects the workmanship and scarcity of the shells. Prices vary over a wide range based on types, strands, and styles, with the finest, multi-strand, colorful lei fetching upwards of $30,000. Earrings made of 12 momi shells can be $75-$150, though black or hot pink kahelelani can go for $10,000 or more.
The kahelelani are smaller than momi and tougher to find, and can require up to a year to gather enough shells for a lei—all of which need to be the same size with similar or matching patterns. Bumpy cowries are used as clasps and the shells are strung by hand, and the only holes in any of the shells should be those that were carefully punched by hand when threading the narrow needle.
Where to Find Them
On Maui, you can find Ni‘ihau jewelry at Totally Hawaiian in the Whalers Village Shopping Center, Kauai Fine Arts on Kauai and Maui Hands on Maui. And while a certificate of authenticity is included with each purchase, the dozens of envious, admiring looks will need to be sourced on your own.
Kyle Ellison is on the Hawaii beat for Travel + Leisure. He divides his time between Hawaii and Asheville, N.C.